‘Ammons & the Falls’ sheds light on the poet’s connection to the landscape of Ithaca


When famed poet AR Ammons came to teach at Cornell in 1964, he was initially disappointed. Not in the university or the students or the university life, but in the geology. As he noted in an interview at the time, “I don’t understand all these rocks.”

Fresh from southern New Jersey, Ammons was used to the tributaries, swamps and pine forests of the Garden State, and he struggled to connect with the landscape of Ithaca, according to Roger Gilbert, professor of English literature at the College of Arts and Sciences.

Everything changed when Ammons wrote “Cascadilla Falls”. The poem, which is the centerpiece of a community celebration on April 26, describes the experience of discovering a stone in a stream below the falls and feeling an intimate connection to both the kidney-shaped object of the hand-sized and the sprawling universe beyond:

the rotation of the earth at 800 mph,
the 190 million miles per year
displacement around the sun,

of the galaxy with the 30,000
mph from where
the sun goes

“I think it’s an important poem in terms of its relationship to the landscape of Ithaca, the waterfalls, the streams, the rocks and the gorges,” Gilbert said. “And that really moved his poetry in a different direction. He was inspired by the landscapes to a large extent, and engaging in the gorges opened up exciting new ways for him to see, think and write.

The April 26 celebration, “Ammons & the Falls,” will include:

  • The unveiling of a new permanent exhibit of Ammons’ poem “Triphammer Bridge” at its namesake location at 4 p.m., followed by the unveiling of an exhibit of “Cascadilla Falls” near the entrance to the gorge next to the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts.
  • A screening of a recent episode of the PBS series “Poetry in America” ​​which explores the many facets of “Cascadilla Falls,” at the Schwarz Center’s Film Forum, at 5 p.m.
  • The screening will be followed by a panel discussion and Q&A, featuring Gilbert; Elisa New, creator and host of “Poetry in America”; Geoffrey Abers, William and Katherine Snee Professor of Geological Sciences at the Faculty of Engineering; Warren Allmon, director of the Paleontological Research Institute and Hunter R. Rawlings III Professor of Paleontology; and Larry Berger, CEO of Amplify, a curriculum publisher.
  • A tour through Cascadilla Gorge, led by Allmon, at 6:15 p.m.

The PBS episode and panel of events brings together an interdisciplinary mix of commentators, reflecting the eclectic range of Ammons’ work, which could range from nature to science to metaphysics, all rendered in eloquent language – but accessible – sometimes embellished with disgusting humor.

Gilbert says “Cascadilla Falls” is a perfect example of Ammons’ aesthetic, and he himself has used the poem for various audiences, especially those – like his freshmen who counsel a seminary and students in STEM fields – who may think they have no interest in poetry. .

“It shows them that poetry has something to say about the world of science. And it can give them a perspective that they wouldn’t get strictly from the sciences themselves,” said Gilbert, who was the poet’s colleague and friend, and co-editor of the book “Considering the Radiance: Essays on the Poetry of AR Ammons”. .” For 15 years he has worked steadily on a biography of Ammons.

These efforts mean Gilbert is always on the lookout for opportunities to highlight Ammons’ significance and presence at Cornell, where the poet continued to teach until his retirement in 1998. The two-time National Book Award winner is died in Ithaca, aged 75, in February 2001.

“I don’t want to get in trouble with any of my friends and colleagues, but I would say he was the most illustrious and acclaimed poet to teach at Cornell during the 20th century,” Gilbert said. “Ammons has received all the great honors and accolades one can get. But beyond that, he is considered a major figure in American poetry. He is to the second half of the 20th century what poets like Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore were to the first half.

The university proved to be the perfect place for a polymath like Ammons, as evidenced by Carl Sagan, Roald Hoffmann, Thomas Pynchon, Ammons students Diane Ackerman and Alice Fulton, and other Cornellians who flourished in the cross-pollination of the arts. and science.

“I think it’s part of Cornell’s DNA, more so than other universities,” Gilbert said. “And I think Ammons’ legacy at Cornell has to do with a certain openness to seeing the connections between the humanities and the sciences, between the literary imagination and the scientific mind, without imposing strict barriers between the culture and nature, or science and art, but seeing them all as flowing together at many different points.

The “Cascadilla Falls” episode of “Poetry in America” ​​will air in Ithaca as part of a two-day PBS marathon on the local WORLD channel at 3 p.m. on April 27.


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